There is a personal classification of movies I always maintain in my mind and it usually depends on the following three rules (except the case where the movie is truly bad or awful). If I keep talking about a movie for a day or two after I watch it and then forget about, I consider the movie to be average or good and worth a watch maybe once. Secondly, if I keep mentioning the movie in talks for quite a number of days or even a month, then I consider it to be very good and worth repeated viewings. On the other hand, there are quite a number of handful cases where I simply cannot forget a movie for a long time. Thinking about scenes from these movies always brings a smile to my face even months or years after I have seen them. The most recent movie I saw, Goodfellas (1990), definitely belongs in the latter category. The experience of watching the movie is one I will never forget and that is why I now consider it to be one of the best movies I have ever seen.
Ever since I saw Martin Scorsese’s recent movies — most notably The Departed in 2006 — I wanted to catch up with his older classics and, to be precise, his collaborations with Robert De Niro. And since I had already seen Taxi Driver quite a while ago on TV, I decided to watch Raging Bull and Goodfellas. The kind of synergy that exists between these two masters of their craft has to be seen to be understood. Taxi Driver was the beginning of their relationship and Raging Bull was arguably the most accomplished and lauded of their efforts and Goodfellas further demonstrates what is so good when the two of them combine together.
Goodfellas follows the story of Henry Hill (based on real-life gangster Henry Hill and portrayed by Ray Liotta) from a period of 1955 to 1980 depicting his rise inside the mafia family under the control of Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino). The movie opens with Henry saying, “To me being a gangster is better than being President of the United States” and then goes on to show how even as a 13-year old kid he wanted to be in the mafia family enjoying the respect and power that comes with it. During this period he also learns the two most important creeds of the mafia world — “Never rat on your friends and always keep your mouths shut” — which is what the entire story is built upon.
As he is gradually accepted within the family as one of their own and starts getting their support in his personal life, he meets up with Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy De Vito (Joe Pesci), two people with whom he is going to be spending the rest of his gangster life with. Jimmy is not a “made man” or one of the top bosses (since he is Irish like Henry) but is generally well respected within the family. Tommy is on the same level of the gangster food-chain as Henry but is very hot-headed and nearly psychotic who can switch between being jovial to being absolutely pissed off in a matter of seconds. And thanks to the latter he also meets up with Karen (Lorraine Bracco) and ends up marrying her.
The first half of the movie is essentially a smaller version of The Godfather. It shows all the good things that can come with being a gangster and glamorizes the life much like its esteemed predecessor. However, the similarities end right there as the second half is all about how it can push you right to the edge of paranoia. The second half is set up with a killing that, while not providing the biggest jolt, is arguably the most important story-wise. Trouble starts brewing within the family subsequently and Henry and his best friends start becoming wary of each other. By the end of the movie, a lot more people have been killed and the entire foundation of the mafia world (and its two most important creeds) is brought into question.
At its heart, Goodfellas is much closer to Scorsese’s previous Raging Bull than The Godfather. That is to say, it is more of a character drama than a gangster film since almost all characters are fully-realized and not one is entirely likable for the duration of the film. Although the narrative is provided by Henry and Karen Hill and these are the two characters Scorsese want us to sympathize with, even they have shades of grey as Henry keeps a mistress and disregards his family for a while and Karen takes some not so pleasing decisions to keep her husband to herself. The actual voice-overs themselves never hinder with the movie and helps Scorsese take us into the minds of his main characters. Henry’s voice-overs are arguably the life of the movie and give us an insight into what is going through his head with each of the actions he commits for his “family”. While Karen’s voice-overs (though very little in number) serve as an interesting look into how she settles into the family as a newcomer and how by the end of the film she is almost one of them helping her husband in business matters.
Even with such a strong script and screenplay, there is only so much Martin Scorsese can do to make Goodfellas the masterpiece that it is. The main responsibility, however, falls squarely on the shoulders of the entire cast. The scene-stealing performance is definitely from Joe Pesci as Tommy for which he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. His depiction of the split second that it takes to change Tommy’s character from being comical to purely homicidal is probably one of the main reasons why we can accept such a character in the first place. It almost feels as if Tommy has multiple personality disorder at times and Pesci does it perfectly. Ray Liotta plays it safe as Henry Hill. He is definitely very good in some scenes which require him to show Henry’s moral issues and though his performance for the part is perfect, it is not as noticeable as Pesci’s. Lorraine Bracco is especially good in scenes where she is required to battle against her husband’s attitude.
The reason I saved Robert De Niro’s performance for the last is because after seeing this movie, I have concluded that he is probably my favorite actor of my generation (something which had been on my mind long before). This performance is again very typical of De Niro. He is there in nearly as much frames as Pesci or Liotta but you don’t notice him unless he wants to be noticed. He underplays his part perfectly and that is the reason why it is such a good performance and it is what makes him such a great actor. There are quite a few scenes especially towards the end of the movie which show him in top form.
Another thing I need to mention is Martin Scorsese’s usage of pop songs instead of generic background scores in many scenes. I first read about this in Roger Ebert’s and James Berardinelli’s reviews of Goodfellas. Both had mentioned about this particular aspect in the movie and when I saw it I understood why. There are quite a few scenes in the movie where a regular instrumental score would have sufficed but by using pop songs that fit in with the scene, Scorsese draws the viewer’s attention further into the film. This is even true for some of the killing scenes where a song could be considered a hindrance but that is not the case since Scorsese meshes it perfectly with the actions on-screen.
Finally, I think what drew me into the movie most was that it is based on a real-life story. That almost all the characters in the movie shared first names with their real-life counterparts only served to further drive home that fact. Even though I mostly speak for me when I say this but deep inside us, most of us would have thought about the power and respect that comes with being a gangster, maybe not consciously but subconsciously at least. This movie serves like the anti-thesis of all that has been built by watching The Godfather and its sequel. It depicts the brutality of the mob especially in the lower parts of the food chain and is probably one of the main reasons why I was engrossed in it so much.
For those of you who have already seen it, I hope my tribute in the form of a review helped you reminisce what is so great about the movie. For those who haven’t I suggest you do so right away and watch what is surely one of the best films in the history of cinema.